You may never have heard of Paula Radcliffe or Eliud Kipchoge or Tigist Tufa. You may not think it fun to stand for hours in cold, gray weather watching people run. But on Sunday, Pamelia and I pulled on extra layers and hit the streets for one of the world’s great events, the London Marathon, in which more 38,000 runners traversed a scenic 26.2-mile route from Greenwich Park (aside the historic Royal Observatory, through which the Greenwich Mean Time meridian passes) to Buckingham Palace. It was bone-chillingly wonderful.
Here’s the thing about the London Marathon: The field each year includes not only the world’s fastest elite competitors—such as world-record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, the 2015 pre-race favorite—but also public-spirited everyday runners who generate a stunning $75 million in donations by linking their miles to causes ranging from children’s cancer research to rainforest conservation. The race is Britain’s biggest annual charity fund-raising event.
Others on Sunday dressed up to run for fun, whether as a Tyrannosaurus rex or Captain America or the Mona Lisa or a bride and groom—though those two actually were a bride and groom whose ceremony took place midway through the race.
I covered many marathons over the years as a writer for Sports Illustrated and always wanted to at least attend the London race. It always takes place within a week or two of the Boston Marathon; great 26.2-mile events pop up each year along with the daffodils and tulips. On Sunday, however, I was eager to see not just the spectacle but also how Kimetto would fare against the second-fastest marathoner in history, his training partner and countryman Wilson Kipsang. Could Kimetto’s almost unbelievably fast record of 2:02:57 fall?
To stay warm and find viewing spots not obstructed by banners and the maze of crowd-control fencing, Pamelia and I kept moving. We joined the mass at Buckingham Palace, where a large video screen was broadcasting the marathon telecast, but finally settled on a perch on Birdcage Walk, the onetime site of King James I’s Royal Menagerie and Aviary and a perfectly named location for The Naturalist’s Notebook duo. (Oh, and there just happened to be a Cock ‘n’ Bull Rotisserie barbecue and hot dog stand 20 yards away.)
Sharp-eyed birder Pamelia spotted another apt feature of Birdcage Walk: a large bird’s nest being built in a tree top right above the runners. She saw what appeared to be a crow flying a stick in to the nest. Unfortunately her view wasn’t good and we didn’t have our friend the great naturalist (and record-setting ultra marathoner) Bernd Heinrich with us for expert confirmation.
In the end, the race was fast but not record-fast. Favorites Kimetto and Kipsang could not keep up with fellow Kenyan Kipchoge, who won in 2:04:42. Tufa, from Ethiopia, won the women’s race in 2:23:22. But she did not receive the loudest cheers among the women.
Those went to 41-year-old Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s great marathoning champion and the female world-record holder (2:15:25, run at London in 2003), who was competing for the final time. She ran with the mixed-gender masses, not with the elite women, and smiled often as she cruised to a 2:36:55 finish.
She capped her day by receiving a lifetime achievement award from one of the few bigger British celebrities on hand: Prince Harry. (Other notables included soccer star David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, the former Spice Girl, whose 12-year-old son ran in the children’s marathon, and seemingly every London-area politician running the the United Kingdom’s May 7 general election.)
Happy London Marathon Sunday to all. And stay tuned for more adventures from the road!
—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood